'Why do my clothes smell after washing?' These are the most common reasons

If you're asking yourself, 'why do my clothes smell after washing?', you'll need to investigate a number of reasons to get to the root of the problem

Why do my clothes smell after washing?
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

We get the question 'why do my clothes smell after washing?' a lot throughout the year, but especially during the winter months. Why do your clothes smell off despite regular washing, a great washing machine, and nice detergent? The answer is most likely a combination of seasonal problems in your house and incorrect drying techniques, but it's worth investigating all the potential reasons. 

1. Your washing machine needs a clean

If both your clothes and the washing machine are giving off a damp, stomach-churning whiff, your washing machine is growing mould. You might not be able to see it yet, but it's there, and it's transferring onto your clothes. It's not just the unpleasant smell you need to worry about in this instance: mould can give you allergies, eczema, and respiratory problems, so you'll want to make sure you get rid of the mould as quickly as possible. 

The solution

Invest in a quality washing machine cleaner and read our guide to how to clean a washing machine

2. You are drying your clothes incorrectly

If by 'after washing', you mean once they're dry, you might be drying your clothes incorrectly. Smell them when you're just taking them out: do they smell fine? Then it's not your washing machine. Often clothes will smell fusty and off if they've dried without being properly hung up, or dried in a dark corner without air circulation. 

The solution

When hanging clothes out to dry, always unfold and spread them properly on the clothes horse/clothing line. Never leave damp clothes to dry scrunched up, or without turning out the sleeves. They will smell and be wrinkled. Also, dry clothing in a place in the house where you can open the window and where there's at least a bit of light. If you're drying lots of items at the same time in a small space, put the heating on to compensate for the increased humidity. 

3. Your wardrobe/chest of drawers doesn't get enough air

Insufficient air circulation inside your clothing storage is a major cause of clean clothes that smell. You wash them, they smell good, they hang in the wardrobe for three days, then they smell off. This is because moisture is getting trapped inside the wardrobe. This can become a vicious circle: once the clothes have absorbed lots of moisture, the smell can be difficult to get out, so they keep smelling even after you've washed them again. 

The solution

Improving ventilation in your bedroom is by far the best solution. Open bedroom windows daily, for example while you shower and have breakfast in the mornings: this should help get rid of excess moisture. Open the wardrobe doors while you're airing the room. If the bedroom is very cold afterwards, turn up the heating, or invest in a portable heater. For clothes that already smell bad, a sun bath is a good remedy. On a bright, sunny day, wash your smelly clothes and dry them in the sun for at least six hours. 

Extra tip: avoid cramming in clothes too tight in wardrobes and chests. Give your garments room to 'breathe' a little. Put any clothes you're not currently wearing in vacuum packs or storage bags.

4. You aren't using enough/the correct detergent

Towels in particular will often smell funky if they're not laundered with the correct dosage of detergent, but this applies to anything that's made from a thick fabric (e.g. sweatshirts, denim, and thick cotton jumpers). 

The solution:

If washing thick, large items, use a bit more detergent, and opt for a fragranced option. Avoid laundering towels and heavy duty items with mild unscented detergent, soap nuts, or eco-eggs. Choose from our best washing powders instead.

5. Your clothes need replacing

It's sad but true: clothes do have a limited lifespan, and when they've reached the end of theirs, you'll know it. Look out for signs of the fabric losing its resilience such as loss of shape, thinness in places, or the stitching loosening. As the fabric thins, it will absorb moisture more readily and can acquire that characteristic 'old' smell that doesn't go no matter how much you wash it. If this is happening, it's time to do a Marie Kondo: thank your clothing item for having served you well and replace it with a new one.